Nonviolence groups tap unlikely mentors

It might seem ironic — even hypocritical — that a campaign for nonviolence would want someone with a criminal record to carry its banner.

But that’s exactly what some groups in the Bay Area have begun to do.

Take somebody like Philthy Rich (real name Philip Beasley), an Oakland-based rapper. After his recent arrest for driving an allegedly stolen Bentley while on probation for firearms charges, he was tapped to go into local schools to talk to kids about keeping the peace.

It may seem unconventional, but that’s really the point, says Nicole Lee, executive director of the Urban Peace Movement, a violence-prevention organization:

“One of our strategies is the use of unlikely messengers. It’s predictable that I’m going to tell them to stop the violence, but I haven’t lived the kind of life that Philthy Rich has.”

And that’s the key. The idea is that kids will react more positively to a message coming from somebody they can identify with, somebody who walks and talks like they do and has lived the way they have, than they would somebody who they can’t relate to.

Philthy Rich’s past is, well, rich with experiences that kids in tough neighborhoods might connect with. He’s been arrested in connection with beating someone, with selling cocaine, and with illegal possession of firearms.

Not the record of a saint, but he might be perfect for this job.

Some worry that using role models like Philthy Rich actually encourages violence. Still, with time, supporters feel that the program’s results will speak for themselves.